Public Urges Rejection of Capital Improvement Plan at June 3 Council Meeting


A new central fire station remains a low priority in the town's draft capital improvement plan. Photo: Amherst Firefighters Local 1764

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, June 3, 2024. Part 2

This hybrid meeting was recorded. It can be viewed here. Thirty-two members of the public were present on Zoom and three in Town Hall.

Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Ellisha Walker (at large), Freke Ette and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), George Ryan and Hala Lord (District 3), Pam Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Bob Hegner (District 5).

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Public Forum on Capital Budget
A public forum on the Capital Improvement Plan for FY 2025 was held prior to the regular town council meeting. Town Manager Paul Bockelman summarized the capital plan. He stated that the town plans to devote 10.5% of the budget to capital in order to address maintenance and repair of current buildings, plan for new ones, and continue to make progress on the town’s climate goals within the existing capital budget for buildings and vehicles.

The proposed capital budget includes $500,000 for roof replacements, increased spending for sustainability projects from $200,000 in FY2024 to $250,000, $1.9 million for public safety communication equipment, $190,000 for sidewalk replacement, $1.3 million including state funds for road repair, and $360,000 for four hybrid police cruisers. 

Bockelman added that the town plans to budget the $30 million estimated cost for replacing the DPW building beginning in FY2028.

Public Comment
In the public comment section of the forum, Vince O’Connor disagreed with having a rigid expenditure level for capital projects that are less pressing and less important than items in the regular budget. He added that he remembers the debate in the 1980’s over building the current police station that can accommodate 80 or more officers, far more than Amherst will ever have. He cautioned the council to be mindful to right-size projects.

Toni Cunningham pointed out several flaws in the capital plan. She noted that an extra 0.5% in this year’s capital budget amounts to about $300,000 of the property tax levy and is almost equal to what the regional schools are asking for in order to minimize the number of educators who are let go. Also, she noted that 18% of the capital budget is allocated to paying the debt for the Jones Library expansion project, which she said is a much lower priority than replacing the central fire station and DPW. She pointed out that the library is receiving 75% more than normal for “equipment”, while Wildwood school can’t afford to restore the much-needed library para educator position that was cut last year.

Cunningham highlighted other problems with the capital plan, such as $900,000 public safety communication equipment that has been added since the last draft, while the town investment in roads has decreased by $800,000. She was also disappointed that the sidewalk along East Pleasant Street is not in the 10-year plan. Other items in the plan for FY25 have already been completed, such as $80,000 to study the HVAC system at Crocker Farm, which was done in 2020 as part of the Crocker Farm expansion study. She also questioned spending $101,000 for planning consultants, including hiring consultants for another parking garage study. She also wanted to see a report of previously appropriated but still unspent capital funds. She urged the council to reject the capital plan and return it to the Town Manager for revisions.

Maria Kopicki also brought attention to what she termed duplicate spending, such as repeating a 2020 energy efficiency analysis of Crocker Farm elementary school. In addition, she called attention to the inclusion of a turf vacuum and turf spray tank, which will not be needed with the plans to eliminate the artificial turf in the latest plans for the  track and field redesign project. Lastly, she urged replacing the oil boiler and improving fire suppression and insulation at the Munson Library.

Jeff Lee and Arlie Gould noted that improvement of the Jones Library was deemed not as important as the central fire station or DPW in the list of the town’s priorities. 

(Update: Despite these concerns, the Finance Committee voted unanimously (5-0) on June 4 to recommend that the council accept the capital improvement plan for FY2025 as presented by the Town Manager.)

Redesign for Heatherstone Road Unanimously Approved
The Town Services and Outreach (TSO) Committee held several meetings, including a public listening session to discuss the DPW plans to remove the median on a small section of Heatherstone, and add a sidewalk part of it, several cross walks, and two or three mini-roundabouts for traffic calming. The plan received favorable comments from most residents who spoke, as well as the Transportation Advisory Committee and Disability Access Advisory Commission. TSO unanimously recommended the plan.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring stated that the cost of  constructing  the sidewalk is only  $21,0000 of  the $466,000 project. Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) asked why Heatherstone is being repaved ahead of other streets that were listed as being in worse condition in the report from a few years ago. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that Heatherstone deteriorated faster in the past few years and that it gained priority because it is used by PVTA buses. Pam Rooney (District 4) asked Mooring to provide a priority list for road repairs. 

Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) wanted reassurance that any problem with water or sewer lines that might be discovered during the repaving will be dealt with at that time. Mooring assured her that would be the case.

The plans for the road project passed unanimously.

Town Maintains AA+ Bond Rating
In the Town Manager’s report, Bockelman stated that the town underwent its bond rating and again received a AA+ rating because of “good financial stewardship.” He stated that the large percentage of college students in Amherst’s population lowers the per capita income in comparison to other towns and prevents Amherst from having a AAA rating that would enable it to earn lower interest rates.

Due to the efforts of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren,  the town and school district were awarded $600,000 from the federal government for the purchase of three electric school buses. The full Town Manager’s report can be read here.

Council Supports Resolution for Paint Recycling
As part of the consent agenda, the council passed a resolution to support proposed measures in the State House and State Senate requiring recycling of paint. The resolution was sponsored by Councilors Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 4), and Devlin Gauthier, with community sponsor Susan Waite. 

The resolution supports a law requiring a convenient collection system for paint to properly manage all architectural paint from business and residential sectors, and decrease inappropriate discarding of paint, diverting paint to its “best and highest use.”

The resolution ends: 

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Amherst Town Council urges the Massachusetts General Court and the leadership of both chambers to view the pending Paint Stewardship legislation favorably and take whatever actions are necessary to pass the Paint Stewardship bills into law, including voting favorably out of any and all committees. 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Amherst Town Council urges the leadership of both chambers of the Massachusetts state legislature to vote to approve H.823 “An Act Relative to Paint Recycling” and S.551 “An Act Relative to Paint Recycling” (currently within H.4263 “An Act to Save Recycling Costs in the Commonwealth”). 

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Clerk of the Amherst Town Council shall cause a copy of this Resolution to be sent to Senator Jo Comerford, Representative Mindy Domb, House Ways & Means Committee Chair Aaron Michiewitz, Senate Ways & Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues, Speaker of the House Ron Mariano, and Senate President, Karen Spilka.

Letter to Ways and Means Committee Approved
Griesemer drafted a letter to the Ways and Means Committee of the state legislature urging them to support bills allocating money to the local departments of health, rural school districts, and Amherst’s CRESS program, as well as Northampton’s alternative policing program. The council unanimously supported the letter.

The council will next meet on June 17, beginning with a joint meeting with the Jones Library Trustees at 6 p.m. to discuss filling a vacancy on the trustees created by the resignation of Bob Pam, who is leaving the area.

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